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I'm posting this in response to a recent question which sparked some discussion in chat and comments, but the issue I want to talk about is broader. I'm also not intending to pick on this question or its asker, and have OK-ed this meta post with the question author (though if I've overstepped, please let me know in comments).

We have some rules about what kinds of questions we allow here, and those rules are based on a variety of things. The rules on my mind here relate to scope and answerability. I am specifically thinking of questions that ask for "why do people [x]", where [x] is any behavior/attitude/etc.

To be perfectly clear, I think that the linked example is a useful and interesting question, and it (along with ones like it) could probably benefit a lot of people. However, I do not think that its presence here is consistent with the SE format, and, more specifically, that it is somewhat at odds with those rules.

I've mentioned elsewhere on meta that our question moderation seems uneven, with negative consequences for the community. In that spirit, I would like to submit that we formally clarify the rules and moderation guidelines so that this kind of question is definitely allowed or not.

My issues with this question on IPS

  1. The major problem is that "why" is extremely difficult to observe, summarize, and express with something as complex as human behavior. I don't know that this kind of question can ever be answered here. While knowing the "why" would be incredibly useful for applying interpersonal skills, I'm not sure that it's any more attainable for that. It would be valuable for me to know the winning lottery numbers next week, but that doesn't make a question asking for them more feasible.

  2. It's far from clear to me that this question has been meaningfully answered by anyone, anywhere, at all, and so answers based on published literature seem problematic (even if I thought that such answers were appropriate here, which is an entirely different issue).

  3. There are uncountable details relevant to the situation which we cannot observe or account for. In chat I rattled off several social conventions which I thought might be in play, but that doesn't help identify which of those (if any) was in operation during the incident described.

  4. Given the breadth of what the question is asking for and our inability to know all the minutiae of the situation, it's not clear to me what a good answer would include. We can explain situations that we've experienced that were facially similar, but that doesn't necessarily address anything in any particular other case. Further, the answers become difficult to assess; they have all the same issues as this type of question has. Finally, when answers are based on a handful of personal experiences that answerers think might apply to the situation in the question, they become very difficult to distinguish from unsupported opinions and "try this" answers.

  5. These sorts of questions seem to flirt with the boundaries of what we allow here, and decisive factors seem to be outside of a neutral application of the posted rules. This is an awkward situation for newer users, who may ask similar questions only to see them closed.

Questions:

  1. Should we allow/should we continue to allow such broad questions on IPS?

  2. If so, what standards will we use to evaluate the quality of answers?

  3. How can we promote equal application of the standards set out in (1) and (2) across all users, old and new, casual and frequent?

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tl;dr

Should we allow/should we continue to allow such broad questions on IPS?

Yes. Questions of the form "Why do people do [X]?" are not too broad. I have here an analysis of the specific question that sparked this meta post using my suggested criteria showing that it is an acceptable and answerable question

If so, what standards will we use to evaluate the quality of answers?

We should apply the standards laid out in Robert Cartaino's blog post on good subjective questions. In addition, we should require that questions contain their scope by providing cultural context, a detailed description of the behavior accompanied by real examples, and information about how the people in the examples related to each other (i.e. friends, family, significant others, etc...)

How can we promote equal application of the standards set out in (1) and (2) across all users, old and new, casual and frequent?

The short answer is the same way that we promote equal application of any other standards. The longer answer is that I think that question in and of itself could easily (and possibly should) be a meta post of its own. Unequal application of policy is an issue that extends beyond the scope of a single policy and should be handled separately.

Previous Policy

As the author of the post that sparked this discussion, I (obviously) think that the post is a good one for IPS or I wouldn't have posted it in the first place. I'll start with the help center which lists categories of questions that are on topic. One of these categories is questions about:

understanding social norms as they relate to interpersonal interactions - why do we interact the way we do?

At one point in time (and perhaps someone who was around during beta could speak better to this) questions asking "Why do people [X]" were considered on topic. This style of question has been asked many times before. There have been several meta posts asking about questions of this format. One such post about this style of question listed a few examples and asked for clarification on them.

  1. Why do (half-)strangers say “I'm sure you'll love it” when they don't know my interests?
  2. Why are people unwilling to share information about their salary?
  3. Why do people flirt in customer service situations

The first two posts are still open, upvoted, and have good answers. The third post is upvoted and has good answers, but is closed as too broad. The major difference that I see between the first two and the third is that the third specifically asks:

So... If you're someone who has flirted in customer service situations, or someone who still does, why do you do it? What's the goal there?

Whether or not these posts should be opened/closed is certainly a point of discussion that should come out of this question. I've mainly included them here to show examples of similar questions that have been asked in the past and how they were received.

Getting back to the meta post about those questions, this answer addressed several of the examples listed. In particular, it generalized 3 patterns and discusses whether or not they should be considered on-topic. Per that answer, questions that can be rephrased as "How can I better empathise with X's feelings in Y situation?" and questions asking for general etiquette should both be considered on topic because they can help people learn and improve skills through understanding and cultural context. The third pattern, deemed to be off-topic, is "Please explain why this person feels/does X." It makes sense to me that this type of question is a bad fit because it would require knowing the inner thoughts and feelings of the other person.

In another meta post, Tinkeringbell noted that certain questions of the form "Why do people [X]?" are good questions for the reasons that

Asking about 'Why do people do a certain interpersonal thingy' is opinion based, but I think it's no more opinion based than "How do I have a conversation about X" since both can be answered from experience

and

So the questions aren't asking us to speculate on the behavior of a single person, but on information about a more-widespread interpersonal skills phenomenon.

The Chat Discussion

After I posted the question, we had a good discussion about it in chat. During this discussion you asked what sort of backup we could expect from such a question. Here are the responses given to that question by Tinkeringbell and myself.

Tinkeringbell: yeah, mostly academic research or google-fu

Rainbacon: It would seem to me as though someone could answer the question coming from experience on the other side of the coin. Something like "I expect recriprocation because of X, Y, and Z" It's also a good candidate for a frame challenge. In the question I've made the assumption that there is a social convention around this. I think it would be perfectly valid for an answerer to assert that there is in fact not a social convention for this and provide reasoning for why such a convention does not exist

Subjective Questions

During this conversation it was mentioned by a few people that interpersonal situations are quite complex and that there are multiple possible reasons for the interaction that I described in the original question. What I gathered from these comments is that the subject matter might be too subjective to answer within a single post. The what not to ask page of the help center talks about subjective questions.

Some subjective questions are allowed, but “subjective” does not mean “anything goes”. All subjective questions are expected to be constructive.

The criteria for good and bad subjective questions are pulled from Robert's blog post about the guidelines for good subjective questions that were developed by moms4mom to help them shape subjective questions to fit the Q&A model. The six criteria they developed are

  • inspire answers that explain “why” and “how”
    • This question specifically is asking "why"
  • tend to have long, not short, answers
    • Any answer that explains why humans behave in a specific way and is fairly short will be missing the sort of back up that we require and wouldn't be a good answer. To answer this question well would require a longer post that cites experience or research in order to back up the explanations given.
  • have a constructive, fair, and impartial tone
    • I'm not great with tone, but my understanding is that presenting a situation and asking why the behaviors exhibited were choosen is fairly impartial. For me, the most important part of learning interpersonal skills is understanding why those skills should be used. It was pointed out in chat that interpersonal interactions are quite complex. Without knowing why a particular skill is used, it can be difficult to apply it across other complex situations. If that isn't a constructive purpose, I don't know what is.
  • invite sharing experiences over opinions
    • There is one existing answer on the question which comes from the personal experience of the author. Another user posted in chat that they were trying to write an answer based on their own personal experiences in similar situations. The nature of IPS is bound to bring people who want to post their opinions. If we closed every question that could have opinions posted, there wouldn't be a site. This question has generated enough experience based content that I think it satisfies this criteria.
  • insist that opinion be backed up with facts and references
    • I think this criteria falls more to the community efforts to curate content than to the question itself. We could specifically write in each question that we are looking for backup for all posts, but ultimately users will answer how they will and this provides us good guidelines for moderation.
  • are more than just mindless social fun
    • Multiple users have mentioned experiencing similar situations either in answers, comments, or chat. Additionally, you've stated that you believe it is a good and valuable question even though you think it's too broad for the stack. Based on that I would say that this particular question is not just mindless social fun.

Looking at these criteria and their explanations in the blog post, I don't believe that any of them rules out questions of "Why do people do [X]?". I very much feel like the specific post in question fits well within the definition of a good subjective question.

What does too broad mean?

Since I posted this answer, my post on the main site has been closed as "too broad". OldPadawan's answer states that the style of question being discussed is not too broad, but does invite very long answers. This meta question was asked about a similar question. That question was originally closed as too broad and then reopened. As part of my answer to that meta, I explained that the criteria listed in the help center do make it seem like the question is too broad, but that I don't think it actually is.

I believe that understanding social norms being on topic is in conflict with requiring questions to be specific and have a goal related to specific interactions. Trying to understand a social norm is inherently broader than a question asking about how to solve a particular problem in a specific situation. Social norms are patterns of behavior that are expected in a specific social context. Some of these norms are wider reaching than others, but all of them involve a pattern of behavior that is accepted and expected by some social group.

Requiring that questions about understanding social norms reference specific situations is good for social norms that are only expected in very specific situations, but for something like eye contact, a social norm which is ubiquitous across most cultures, truly understanding it will require looking beyond specific interactions.

The help center lists 4 criteria to make questions specific enough to be answerable.

  1. Cultural context
  2. Who is involved
  3. What you've already tried
  4. Your priorities for the outcome

I think that we should amend these criteria for questions asking to understand the why of interpersonal skills. The first two criteria obviously should stay. We should require that questions provide as much cultural context and information about the relations between the people involved as possible. The reasons behind why we interact the way we do will often be rooted in culture or the dynamics of the relationships in play. Requiring this information in the question will help narrow down the field of answers to make it manageable.

We shouldn't required information about what the asker has already tried. For questions that are asking how to use skills, knowing what the asker has tried will guide answers to ensure that they are truly solving the question asked. This won't be useful for questions seeking to understand the why. In these situations there isn't a good concept of what an asker has tried. Instead, we should be asking for a description of the pattern of behavior they have observed (preferably with examples) and what understanding they have of it. By asking for a thorough explanation of the behavior, we can ensure that the question provides enough detail to allow for reasonably scoped answers.

We also shouldn't require questions to outline a specific goal or outcome. The goal for such a question is to gain an understanding of a way in which people interact. Answers should be directed toward providing a backed up explanation instead of solving a specific problem.

To summarize, I believe that questions asking "Why do people do X?" should meet the following criteria to be considered appropriately scoped:

  1. Provide context about the culture of the people who are engaging in the behavior
  2. Explain who is involved in the scenarios that the asker has observed and how those people are related
  3. Explain in detail what pattern of behavior the OP has observed, and provide real examples to illustrate the behavior
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I came here from the question itself, since it is an interesting question that will spark discussion.

My point on this is that while it is very interesting and it will actually teach us a lot about IPS, looks more like something for the Psychology and Neuroscience SE since OP is asking more about how people operate in a general way than how to handle a specific situation.

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I'll try and make the answer to this as short as the answer to the referenced OP could be as broad as a book. And the one and only (top-rated) answer doesn't actually answer the question "Why is there a social expectation... ?" but gives personal experience.

If I properly remember what I've read / understood about "social psychology", and according to [ Mead / Durkheim / Wundt / Bakhtine / Aron / and many other psychologists and psychiatrists ], it's often based upon "mechanical solidarity" (also known as "associative solidarity"), and "collective feelings". Which means that it promotes a sense of community ownership and belonging.

Short answer: people expect that we answer with a "predefined response". It makes them feel good / better and part of the clan / team. (this could be asked / verified on psy.se too I guess.)

Why I didn't answer the OP before it's put on hold : IMHO, this type of question isn't really too broad or off-topic for IPS, but they call for such a veeeeerrrrrrryyyy long answer if you want to back it up. What to do then? What would be a nice and achievable guideline?

However, I do not think that its presence here is consistent with the SE format, and, more specifically, that it is somewhat at odds with those rules.

What else?... Could I write an answer to the OP, spend hours making it clear and as short as possible, and still end up with a PhD-thesis-ish-long answer?

This is not really answering you question, @Upper_Case, it's just intended to add one more grain of sand, maybe a useful contribution to this...

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  • I think that this is helpful. My concern is that different site goals are in tension, and any observations which clarify that tension and tradeoffs we would have to make to resolve it are valuable. – Upper_Case Mar 6 '19 at 17:43
  • "this type of question isn't really too broad or off-topic for IPS, but they call for such a veeeeerrrrrrryyyy long answer if you want to back it up." - Yes, one of the criteria for good subjective answers as explained in the help center is that they tend to favor longer answers – Rainbacon Mar 6 '19 at 18:03
  • @Rainbacon : oh I know and agree :) it's just that, in this particular case, I'd have to write a book. So, on-topic Q and on the edge of being a not-a-useful-answer because it's too long and people won't read it. You can't make it readable and of an acceptable lenght here. – OldPadawan Mar 6 '19 at 19:07

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